Plutarch vs. Appian: Who was right about Spartacus?


In our first blog post, our group introduced the gladiators as they really were, in contrast to the image we as the audience have absorbed from media. Here's the thing, though - how did we find out what the reality was?

In fact, how do we know anything?

Let's think about this for a moment - pull up any fact that is not first-hand knowledge. How do you know that this is true?

We really don't.

Because there is simply too much information in our culture for any one person to be able to research and understand it all on their own, we find ourselves in the position of hoping that the experts who have processed this information and presented it to us are as unbiased and accurate as possible. This blog post will show you how much the truth can diverge in the hands of different writers, using the case of Spartacus and his rebel force of gladiators and slaves. 

'Spartacus' (1960) film poster, via Wikimedia Commons NOT one of the expert sources 

'Spartacus' (1960) film poster, via Wikimedia Commons
NOT one of the expert sources 

The Third Servile (derived from "slave" in Latin) War refers to the period between 73-71 BCE during which a band of escaped gladiators grew into an army of over a hundred thousand men (Appian, Civil Wars, 1:117), defeated various Roman forces that were sent against it, and was finally defeated in turn by a Roman general named Crassus (Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 11:7).

The two most comprehensive sources of information that exist today about this chapter in history come from two Romans of Greek origin: Plutarch (c. 46-120 CE), a biographer and essayist, and Appian of Alexandria (c. 95-165 CE), a historian. Life of Crassus by Plutarch and Civil Wars by Appian were written roughly two centuries after the actual events, though Crassus was produced some decades before Civil Wars. As a result, Plutarch and Appian would likely have had access to many of the original records of the war - but despite this, there are various major and minor differences in their narratives.

Self-created using Google My Maps

Self-created using Google My Maps

Both accounts agree on the general timeline of the war. In 73 BCE, Spartacus was one of "about seventy" (Appian, Civil Wars, 1:116) gladiators who escaped from their gladiator school in the city of Capua, just under 200 kilometres to the southeast of Rome on the Italian peninsula. After their escape, they obtained weapons and supplies from the surrounding region and retreated to Mt. Vesuvius, 30 kilometres south of Capua, where their numbers grew rapidly as "herdsmen and shepherds" (Plutarch, Crassus, 9:3) and "fugitive slaves and even some freemen" (Appian, Civil Wars, 1:116) joined them.

Over the next year, this growing force defeated multiple Roman contingents sent to quash the burgeoning revolt, despite a gradual increase in their enemies' numbers as Rome grew increasingly concerned. At some point, Spartacus and his men began to head north, aiming to cross over the Alps to return to the homelands from which many of them had been enslaved through conquest. Crassus, the general who would ultimately defeat Spartacus, and his army began to oppose Spartacus some time after that. (Appian, Civil Wars, 1:117-118; Plutarch, Crassus, 9:4-10:1)

Subsequently, Spartacus and his men were forced to withdraw southwards in 71 BCE, and were finally pressed up against the coast at the southwestern tip of the Italian peninsula. Crassus then built fortifications from coast to coast, trapping them and cutting off their supply route - a common siege tactic. Spartacus's men managed to break through to make a headlong dash for the mountains again, but soon turned to stand and fight Crassus's army. They were defeated; tens of thousands, including Spartacus, were killed. Thus ended the third and final Servile War. (Appian, Civil Wars, 1:118-120; Plutarch, Crassus, 10:1-11:7) 

Tod des Spartacus. By Hermann Vogel, via Wikimedia Commons

Tod des Spartacus. By Hermann Vogel, via Wikimedia Commons

The most significant difference between Plutarch's and Appian's accounts involves the period during which Spartacus and his men moved northward. According to Plutarch, on the way north, Spartacus's army "defeated the legates of Lentulus", one of two consuls sent by Rome to hunt them down. Continuing further north, they encountered and vanquished Gaius Cassius, the governor of Cisalpine Gaul, and his "army of ten thousand men". This left the path over the Alps and out of the Italian peninsula open to them; Plutarch does not provide an explanation for why Spartacus's forces instead turned back southwards to engage Crassus in Picenum. (Plutarch, Crassus, 9:5-7)

3rd servile 72 plutarch, via Wikimedia Commons

3rd servile 72 plutarch, via Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, Appian states that as Spartacus's army marched north, they defeated both consuls. They then marched on Rome "with 120,000 foot", along the way encountering both consuls again - and routing them yet again. At this point, according to Appian, "Spartacus changed his intention of marching on Rome", as he believed his forces were unready. Instead, he withdrew his army to Thurii, a city in the far south, where he proceeded to defeat yet another Roman force. Some time after that, Crassus's army appeared to face them. (Appian, Civil Wars, 1:117-118)

AppienSpartacus, via Wikimedia Commons

AppienSpartacus, via Wikimedia Commons

In summary:


As you can see, these two narratives are mismatched - indeed, they might even be said to be complementary, since neither technically contradicts the other. It is possible to construct a single, coherent narrative using all the events mentioned in both accounts, which leaves the reader even more puzzled as to how and why Plutarch and Appian each made their choices of events.

Perhaps we should then turn to other sources for arbitration. There are five other ancient sources of information on the Third Servile War; arranged by date, they are: 

  • Sallust's The Histories, 44-35 BCE
  • Livy's Periochae, early 1st century CE
  • Frontinus's Strategies, late 1st century CE
  • Florus's Epitome of Roman History, 125-135 CE
    (Florus, Plutarch, and Appian were contemporaries) 
  • Orosius's History against the Pagans, 5th century CE  

Plutarch mentions the defeat of Cassius while Appian does not. Livy, Florus, and Orosius all do as well (Livy, Periochae, 96; Florus, Epitome of Roman History, 2.8; Orosius, History against the Pagans, 5.24). This suggests that Plutarch might have utilised the oldest of the relevant texts, Livy's Periochae, as a source of information - but why then did Appian not? 

Similarly, Appian describes Spartacus's march on Rome while Plutarch does not. Florus alone does, too (Florus, Epitome, 2.8); perhaps he and Appian were both influenced by a common source that is no longer in existence. Then again, if that were the case, why did the others not refer to the same source in their own research? 

Unfortunately, no true primary source for the events of the Third Servile War remains in existence today - no documents written during 73-71 BCE. The oldest surviving source, Sallust's Histories, consists of fragments that do not mention any events during the northwards march of Spartacus’s army; we are hence left with Livy’s Periochae as potentially the truest source of information regarding this issue - but it was written a century after Spartacus died. Furthermore, the ancients did not often include competing theories for comparative analysis or mention specific texts they consulted in the course of writing their own account.

It is thus impossible for us to ascertain why such differences emerged in their narratives, given the lack of a relevant source from the same time period as Spartacus, nor the knowledge of where Plutarch and Appian obtained their information from. 

We simply do not have enough information to reach a satisfactory conclusion about the sequence of events during this contested period. What we do know, though, is that two men who wrote in the same time period produced wildly divergent accounts of the movements of an enormous army - one large enough to have terrified the inhabitants of Rome. If accounts written two hundred years after the fact can be this dissimilar, what more two thousand years later?

It is, clearly, imperative for us to be highly discerning in the way we consume all forms of media, popular or academic. 

1878 painting by Fedor Andreevich Bronnikov, via Wikimedia Commons Crassus crucified 6,000 survivors of Spartacus’s army on the road between Rome and Capua.

1878 painting by Fedor Andreevich Bronnikov, via Wikimedia Commons
Crassus crucified 6,000 survivors of Spartacus’s army on the road between Rome and Capua.



Plutarch's Lives (1916, 1917). (B. Perrin, Trans.). Cambridge, US: Harvard University Press / London, UK: Heinemann. 

Appian's Roman History (1913). (H. White, Trans.). Cambridge, US: Harvard University Press / London, UK: Heinemann. 

Lucius Annaeus Florus: Epitome of Roman History (1929). (E. S. Forster, Trans.). Cambridge, US: Harvard University Press / London, UK: Heinemann. 

Winkler, M. M. (2007). The Principal Ancient Sources on Spartacus. In M. M. Winkler (Ed.), Spartacus: Film and History. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Retrieved from